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Is AC Immune (NASDAQ:ACIU) Using Too Much Debt?

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Simply Wall St
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Legendary fund manager Li Lu (who Charlie Munger backed) once said, 'The biggest investment risk is not the volatility of prices, but whether you will suffer a permanent loss of capital.' So it seems the smart money knows that debt - which is usually involved in bankruptcies - is a very important factor, when you assess how risky a company is. As with many other companies AC Immune SA (NASDAQ:ACIU) makes use of debt. But the real question is whether this debt is making the company risky.

What Risk Does Debt Bring?

Debt assists a business until the business has trouble paying it off, either with new capital or with free cash flow. If things get really bad, the lenders can take control of the business. However, a more common (but still painful) scenario is that it has to raise new equity capital at a low price, thus permanently diluting shareholders. Of course, plenty of companies use debt to fund growth, without any negative consequences. The first step when considering a company's debt levels is to consider its cash and debt together.

View our latest analysis for AC Immune

How Much Debt Does AC Immune Carry?

You can click the graphic below for the historical numbers, but it shows that as of June 2019 AC Immune had CHF585.0k of debt, an increase on CHF554.0k, over one year. But it also has CHF285.7m in cash to offset that, meaning it has CHF285.2m net cash.

NasdaqGM:ACIU Historical Debt, August 19th 2019
NasdaqGM:ACIU Historical Debt, August 19th 2019

How Strong Is AC Immune's Balance Sheet?

According to the last reported balance sheet, AC Immune had liabilities of CHF13.3m due within 12 months, and liabilities of CHF9.67m due beyond 12 months. Offsetting these obligations, it had cash of CHF285.7m as well as receivables valued at CHF1.69m due within 12 months. So it actually has CHF264.5m more liquid assets than total liabilities.

This surplus liquidity suggests that AC Immune's balance sheet could take a hit just as well as Homer Simpson's head can take a punch. With this in mind one could posit that its balance sheet is as strong as beautiful a rare rhino. Simply put, the fact that AC Immune has more cash than debt is arguably a good indication that it can manage its debt safely.

It was also good to see that despite losing money on the EBIT line last year, AC Immune turned things around in the last 12 months, delivering and EBIT of CHF19m. When analysing debt levels, the balance sheet is the obvious place to start. But ultimately the future profitability of the business will decide if AC Immune can strengthen its balance sheet over time. So if you want to see what the professionals think, you might find this free report on analyst profit forecasts to be interesting.

Finally, a business needs free cash flow to pay off debt; accounting profits just don't cut it. AC Immune may have net cash on the balance sheet, but it is still interesting to look at how well the business converts its earnings before interest and tax (EBIT) to free cash flow, because that will influence both its need for, and its capacity to manage debt. Over the last year, AC Immune actually produced more free cash flow than EBIT. That sort of strong cash generation warms our hearts like a puppy in a bumblebee suit.

Summing up

While we empathize with investors who find debt concerning, you should keep in mind that AC Immune has net cash of CHF285m, as well as more liquid assets than liabilities. The cherry on top was that in converted 140% of that EBIT to free cash flow, bringing in CHF26m. So we don't think AC Immune's use of debt is risky. Above most other metrics, we think its important to track how fast earnings per share is growing, if at all. If you've also come to that realization, you're in luck, because today you can view this interactive graph of AC Immune's earnings per share history for free.

If you're interested in investing in businesses that can grow profits without the burden of debt, then check out this free list of growing businesses that have net cash on the balance sheet.

We aim to bring you long-term focused research analysis driven by fundamental data. Note that our analysis may not factor in the latest price-sensitive company announcements or qualitative material.

If you spot an error that warrants correction, please contact the editor at editorial-team@simplywallst.com. This article by Simply Wall St is general in nature. It does not constitute a recommendation to buy or sell any stock, and does not take account of your objectives, or your financial situation. Simply Wall St has no position in the stocks mentioned. Thank you for reading.